Books

In Brief

Four recent nonfiction titles

AFTER THE TALL TIMBER:

Collected Nonfiction

By Renata Adler

New York Review Books, 528 pages, $29.95

In this era of the ascendant younger female essayist (with such leading lights as Eula Biss, Roxane Gay, and Leslie Jamison), it’s useful to reread the early work of Renata Adler, film reviewer, journalist, cultural critic, and lightning rod. Adler’s work in this collection, especially in long essays on Selma and Black Power, or dispatches from Israel and Biafra, much of it published 50 years ago, still feels impressively fresh and urgent. Her reporting and writing are both fearless and somehow ego-less, somewhat like The New York Times reporters she describes covering the civil rights movement: “entirely free of self-importance or punditry, rather like great short-order cooks.” Of course, unlike a daily journalist, Adler was paid to express her opinions — which she did in spades — and she wrote for magazines that allowed her length as well as breadth.

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Many of the pieces collected here are so much more expansive than what we currently dub “long reads” that it can be almost a shock to read them. We are unused to critical argumentation that goes so deeply into its subject, as in Adler’s legendarily fierce, and accurate, review of New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael’s book, “When the Lights Go Down.” At a time when journalism had become too self-congratulatory, it’s bracing to read Adler attack the hypocrisy of Bob Woodward, The New York Times, and others. Yet it’s as a reporter that Adler delivers the most pleasure. In her piece on Selma, she is exquisitely alert, equally capable of sketching the big, complicated scene of marchers on the way to Montgomery, and noticing, wryly, the strange appearance of Joan Baez onstage at march’s end, “wearing a purple velvet dress and a large bronze crucifix, [breaking] into a rather reverent Frug” as protest songs were sung.

HISSING COUSINS:

The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth

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By Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 352 pages, $28.95

A juicy counterhistorical novel could be built on the fact that the young Franklin Delano Roosevelt seemed equally attracted to distant cousin Alice Roosevelt (President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter) as he was to another, his eventual wife, Eleanor Roosevelt (Teddy’s niece). Would FDR have been elected president if he had been married to the scandalous, stylish, reflexively Republican Alice, as opposed to the morally upright, eternally dutiful, eventual Democratic icon Eleanor? Although both have been the subject of multiple biographies (indeed, it’s a stretch to call any Roosevelt family story truly “untold”), this new book focuses on a relationship that changed radically as these two women, both born in 1884, grew up and assumed their roles as leading figures in their respective political parties.

“To her cousin Eleanor, Alice was a childhood playmate, a teenage confidante, and, in adulthood, a relentless rival,” Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer point out, and the book is most moving when chronicling the childhood losses each endured, and the rich web of family in which they were raised. Both grab our sympathy as young women — the authors make a convincing case that bright, iconoclastic Alice bridged a gap for “a country with one foot in the Victorian era and the other on the cusp of a new century”— but in adulthood their differences couldn’t be starker. With her cruel impressions of Eleanor’s face and speaking voice, and her increasingly reactionary politics, Alice begins to seem merely bitter and pathetic, and the authors’ admiration of her a bit misplaced. More astutely, the authors ponder “how much more these two fearless and determined female Roosevelts would have accomplished if they hadn’t been pushing against gender barriers at almost every turn.”

MOTORCYCLES I’VE LOVED:

A Memoir

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By Lily Brooks-Dalton

Riverhead, 256 pp., $27.95

“I felt the hum of the 750cc’s against the inside of my thigh and hot metal searing through the thick skin of my jeans,” writes Lily Brooks-Dalton toward the start of her memoir of a life in motorcycles, “savage energy below me, literally combusting, over and over.” Despite this seriously sexy description, the chief metaphor Brooks-Dalton employs isn’t sensual, but physical — as in physics. Each chapter bears titles such as velocity, impulse, gravity and inertia, and Brooks-Dalton weaves a nuts-and-bolts primer on each into her narrative of learning to ride and care for a series of cycles.

Of course, motorcycles and even physics ultimately stand in for the book’s true subjects, the chief topics in many youthful memoirs: family, fear, and the process of overcoming both. Brooks-Dalton plans a long solo motorcycle journey, a metaphor for self-discovery that also happens to do the job. In the end, “Motorcycles I’ve Loved” feels like a young person’s book, but that’s not a terrible thing: One hopes to see what this author’s next adventure will produce.

THE NEW PROPHETS OF CAPITAL

By Nicole Aschoff

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Verso, 160 pp., paperback, $16.95

What’s your mental image of an evil capitalist? Perhaps you picture someone like Rich Uncle Pennybags, the monocle-sporting mascot of the Monopoly game. But Nicole Aschoff, a lecturer in sociology at Boston University and an editor at Jacobin magazine, would like us to cast a more skeptical eye at today’s more user-friendly capitalists, among them some of our society’s richest, most admired figures: Oprah, Bill and Melinda Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, and Whole Foods founder John Mackey. These new, “elite storytellers,” Aschoff argues, present themselves as visionaries capable of changing the world, but all their solutions fit “within the logic of existing profit-driven structures of production and consumption.”

Published as part of a series in conjunction with Jacobin, “The New Prophets of Capital” is intellectually serious without succumbing to critical jargon, and Aschoff makes her points both thoughtfully and rigorously. After her energetic arguments against these seductive storytellers, the book concludes with a call for “a very different kind of society — one that is driven by the dictates of human need, not profit.”

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.